By Maria Paula Mugnani
Massachusetts Renaissance Center Garden Project, 2012
Introduction: “I found that some of the gardens had grape arbors, did anyone else find that?” a student in the group asks. “Yeah, but I heard they were more of a treat for the wealthy manors, the lower income commoner cottages had wild varieties or basic fruit like apples and gooseberries,” someone answers.
“I read that too, and that they used the prickly fruit bushes as part of the fencing to keep animals and unwanted visitors out,” another offers. The conversation continues in this way in the furnished dining room of The Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies not far from the University of Massachusetts campus. To look at it, one could almost believe the room was a scene from the Renaissance period: the shelves are tastefully arranged with medieval artifacts and sculptures, richly colored tapestries drape the walls and the central table is decorated with wood carvings. But it is actually a sunny fall day in the year 2012 during one of meetings of the new initiative by the center, UMASS staff and Five College students to create replicas of English commoner cottage gardens from the 14th and 15th centuries. During the Middle Ages, these gardens were emerging as valued sources of food, medicine and recreational aesthetics. Medieval literature abounds with references of castle gardens as luxurious mazes, romantic scenes of courtly love and displays of royal wealth, but the story of commoner gardens, known as cottage gardens, is little known.
The original project hypothesis was that English cottage gardens changed dramatically from the 14th century to the 15th century after Columbus’ voyage, which introduced new plants and goods from the New World. However, a semester of research, my collaborative group found that this was not immediately the case, firstly because the exchange of goods, customs and resources took a long time in the period of slow transportation and commerce, but also because the hypothesis centralized around the gardens of the lower class which would not have had access to the expensive foreign goods. Although the gardens did eventually change to reflect Columbus’ voyage it was not to happen within the hypothesis 14th to 15th century timeframe.